Been there, discovered it

Has science solved every mystery? Or are we fish who can't recognize the water we're swimming in?


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Scott Rosenberg
July 1, 1996 11:00PM (UTC)

in the immortal words of the Jackson 5, we never can say goodbye. We live in an age that is never satisfied with the closure of a true ending; if something gives us pleasure we want it to keep going forever. We crave reruns and sequels, reunion tours, unlimited refills. When we see the label "The End," we suspect it's really a tease for another installment. No other phrase in the English language intends to be as final, and none other winds up being quite as inconclusive.

This presents an irresistible challenge for the serious writer or thinker who wants to shake us by the shoulders and persuade us that something really is over. Here in the final decade of the 20th century, eschatology -- the study of the ends of things -- has become one of publishing's growth industries. Among the more notable "End of..." titles are "The End of Nature" (Bill McKibben), "The End of History" (Francis Fukuyama), "The End of Equality" (Mickey Kaus), "The End of Work" (Jeremy Rifkin), "The End of Education" (Neil Postman) and the latest, John Horgan's "The End of Science."

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These books -- some turgid and some brilliant -- don't have that much in common beyond the first three words of their titles. Fukuyama's "History," for instance, is a Hegelian's declaration that the triumph of liberal democracy brings human history to its fulfillment. McKibben's "Nature" is an environmentalist's meditation on the tragic irreversibility of human intervention in the natural world. And Horgan's "Science" is a journalist's tour of the confused state of scientific endeavor in an era when all the "big" discoveries seem to have been made.

What these treatises do share is a fervent conviction that the present historical moment is unique. This belief gives them their urgency and helps them stand out on bookstore shelves crowded with less cosmically sweeping tomes. But it also marks them with a certain unconscious arrogance -- a subtle pandering to a kind of historical egotism that our time is special, unparalleled, like no other. These intellectuals may not go all millennial on us, with prophecies of the rapture or scenarios of cosmic retribution; but they do flatter us that, hey, whatever we may have achieved (or screwed up), we live in Important Times.

Take "The End of Science." Horgan, a writer for Scientific American, reads a book by a biologist named Gunther Stent and is gripped by the fear that "the great era of scientific discovery is over.... Further research may yield no more great revelations of revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns." He's not talking about applied science but big breakthrough discoveries that change our understanding of the universe -- like Darwin's and Einstein's and Watson-and-Crick's. All that's left for the ambitious scientist today, according to Horgan, is the practice of "ironic science" -- something closer to literary criticism or philosophy than basic research. Though speculation remains rife in fields like chaos, complexity and superstring theory, these disciplines have become so abstruse that their findings can't be checked against, or related to, empirical reality.

Horgan sits down for interviews with one big-name scientist after another: Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Edward Witten, E.O. Wilson, Noam Chomsky, Francis Crick, Roger Penrose, Marvin Minsky, Murray Gell-Mann, Mitchell Feigenbaum, Freeman Dyson and many others. The interviewer is sharp, and "The End of Science" is most enjoyable as a kind of whirlwind tour of the eccentric landscape of genius today. Horgan is at his best recording the cantankerous debates of a workshop at the trendy Santa Fe Institute -- or dining with chaos theorist Ilya Prigogine, whose lectures on "the end of certainty" are lapped up by sycophantic disciples.

But Horgan clings doggedly to his "end of science" thesis even as many of his interviewees dismiss it. After all, they point out, how many times in the past had their scientific predecessors felt confident that they'd figured out the universe -- only to have their theories blown apart by some new insight or discovery? Horgan feels that such arguments constitute the wishful thinking of men (there's only one female scientist in the group, Gaia theorist Lynn Margulis) who need to believe there are still challenges waiting out there for them.

Horgan is impatient with what he views as the sophistries of the "ironic scientists" he interviews. He tries to respect them for their imagination, for "serving as humanity's negative capability," "reminding us that all our knowledge is half-knowledge." But he can't help looking down on them for "not making any significant contributions to knowledge itself." He's on a quest for "empirical, rigorous science, the kind of science that solves its problems, that renders the world comprehensible, that gets us somewhere" -- good old, solid, real science.

But what if the ironic scientists are providing us with a true picture of reality? What if complexity, indeterminacy and uncertainty are the fundamental conditions of the physical universe? In that case, of course, it is the ironists who are pursuing the old path of science, and the "real scientists" who have their heads buried in sand.

This possibility offers Horgan no comfort because he is sentimentally committed to "real" science as the one true path. His "end of science" is not the end of science at all, but the end of a particular kind of confident, un-selfconscious science that he cherishes for personal reasons. He writes, "Just as lovers begin talking about their relationship only when it sours, so will scientists become more self-conscious and doubtful as their efforts yield diminishing returns." He never considers that self-consciousness and doubt may be a vital ingredient of full knowledge -- or, for that matter, that lovers might talk about their relationship before it sours, thereby keeping it sweet.

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"Negative capability" -- Keats' phrase for the ability of a poet like Shakespeare to hold more than one truth in the mind at once -- is a precious resource; it's the only antidote to our blinkered, mired-in-the-present subjectivity. There's a great moment in "The End of Science" when arch-Darwinian Richard Dawkins -- talking at a literary conclave -- is challenged by John Perry Barlow, the Grateful Dead lyricist and online libertarian. Dawkins is maintaining that extraterrestrial life is likely to be scarce.

Barlow bravely broke in to suggest that our inability to detect alien life-forms may stem from our perceptual inadequacies. "We don't know who discovered water," Barlow added meaningfully, "but we can be pretty sure it wasn't fish." Dawkins turned his level gaze on Barlow. "So you mean we're looking at them all the time," Dawkins asked, "but we don't see them?" Barlow nodded. "Yessss," Dawkins sighed, as if exhaling all hope of enlightening the unutterably stupid world.

When it comes to the great questions of science, history and philosophy that every "End of..." book addresses, we're all like Barlow's fish: what's most important to us may well be most invisible to us. Fukuyama's "The End of History," for instance, suggests that the triumph of liberal, capitalist democracy means that there will be "no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions, because all of the really big questions have been settled." That might make some sense as long as you go along with Fukuyama's definition of the "really big questions." If, on the other hand, you think questions like "How do we organize society to prevent people from starving?" or "How do we prevent society from destroying the natural world?" retain a certain magnitude, you may conclude that history still has some way to go.

Fukuyama mistakes the resolution of one particular ideological struggle in our time -- the triumph of capitalism over communism -- for a final end to all ideological conflict. It's the same sort of historical egotism that enables a John Horgan to conclude that, because contemporary scientists have figured out how atoms work and mapped out DNA, there's nothing left to discover. It is the error of assuming that the water we swim in is the only imaginable world -- while unknown dry continents extend in all directions and exotic birds fly above us, unseen.

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"In the long run, we're all dead."
-- John Maynard Keynes

All meditations on the ends of things share one frame of reference -- that of our individual mortality. Though Horgan cannot prove that science is "over," he can demonstrate fairly persuasively that most scientists alive today are unlikely to achieve the kind of monumental breakthroughs they might dream of -- the kind that might make them feel they've won "immortality." (The philosopher George Steiner has similarly argued that literature is in decline because writers no longer feel that, if they write well enough, their work will live on forever; the great gamble against death no longer offers a payoff.) Once more, what was framed as a problem of limits turns out to be a crisis of ego.

Death, the great leveler, puts an ultimate limit on the achievements of any one lifetime. Horgan gamely contemplates the possibility that science might somehow "solve the problem" of death, but goes on, weirdly, to argue that this wouldn't matter: "Immortality, although it would represent a triumph of applied science, would not necessarily change our fundamental knowledge of the universe." Perhaps not -- but it would change something even bigger: our fundamental knowledge of our place in the universe.

Science, history, nature: these cannot stop moving, even if one generation feels it's in a stall. What ends are particular conceptions of science or history or nature -- visions of them that writers hold dear and fear they will never again encounter in their lives. In this sense, the whole "End of..." genre can be understood as a species of personal elegy -- a lament for the disappearance of a writer's own youth projected, megalomaniacally, onto a cosmic scale.

Horgan makes reference to the critic Harold Bloom's argument, in his "The Anxiety of Influence," that latter-day poets are stuck with defining themselves in opposition to towering predecessors whom they can never surpass. Scientists today labor under a similar "anxiety of scientific influence," Horgan maintains.

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Bloom's perspective is authoritative, but it is not the only vision of how present-day thinkers must relate to the past. The other great literary approach to this subject, Walter Jackson Bate's "The Burden of the Past and the English Poet," portrays the Neoclassical era of the mid-to-late 18th century as a time very like our own -- when scholars labored in the long shadows of their titanic forebears and believed that all the great books had been written, all the important discoveries had been made and nothing was left but to classify and mop up. How readily we can identify with that time -- and how little we can predict our own future. After all, none of Bate's Neoclassicists had any idea that they lived on the threshold of the Romantic era, with all its restless transformations of society and culture.

It may seem painfully obvious, but apparently it bears repeating: anyone who thinks that all the great discoveries have been made, all the great books have been written, all the great ideas been thought is just waiting to be rudely surprised by life itself. Time and flux will prove every "end of" proclamation to have been premature.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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